Ten Tips for Increasing Rules Clarity (Article by Chris Wray)

In preparing yesterday’s article on rules quality, I glanced through dozens if not hundreds of rules threads on BoardGameGeek.  I noticed some common themes, so as a follow-up to yesterday’s article, I’m posting my thoughts here on what publishers and designers can do to increase clarity in game rules.

But this article isn’t just for publishers/designers: I’ve also listed a few tips to help us players better understand rules.  

As usual, I’ve given the rest of The Opinionated Gamers the opportunity to comment below.

  1. Focus on organization.  Where you say something can be just as important as what you say and how you say it.  Many (if not most) BGG threads end with somebody pointing to the relevant part of the rulebook, but the confusion arises in the first place because somebody just couldn’t find the answer.
  2. Provide examples, preferably with pictures.  People process information in different ways, and some readers will find it difficult to piece all of the gameplay elements together without examples.  Put differently, some people just don’t like learning processes by reading text alone. Well-designed examples (especially with pictures) are one of the best ways to add clarity, but they also help teach the game.  I noticed that several BGG questions are answered by designers/publishers with examples that should have just been in the rulebook to begin with.
  3. Get the perspective of others.  Playtesting is paramount, not only because it helps you find unanticipated situations in gameplay, but also because you get to see how the groups interact with the rules.  One of the best designers I’ve ever play tested for actually had a pen and paper handy and would periodically interrupt to ask us, “What do you think that rule means?”
  4. Don’t skimp on the translation.  Many of the games we hobbyists play were originally designed and developed in a different languages.  One of the biggest drivers of rules questions on BGG is textual meaning that gets lost in translation.
  5. Focus on graphic design, which especially matters on your components.  By using visual “nudges,” you can add clarity mid-gameplay without reference to the rulebook.  For example, many Ticket to Ride maps have visual reminders of scoring and what you can do on your turn, so nobody has to grab for the rulebook to check.  That’s an elegant solution in Ticket to Ride, and I dare say it is mandatory in more complex games. Sure, those visual nudges may not prevent BGG rule threads, but they’re greatly appreciated by us users of games.   (Bonus Points: Most players love having — and will use — player aids.)
  6. Clean up your writing.  I’m as verbose as the next person when rambling on this site, but I wouldn’t be if I were drafting rules language.  I’d keep it as concise as possible, use plain language, and aim for readability. For many people, reading rulebooks is already daunting, and if your writing isn’t highly readable, you’re adding to their frustration.  Also, when writing rules, understand that we humans have some basic tools of interpretation (described below) that we use to interpret things.
  7. Think about and try to eliminate ambiguity/vagueness.  Many BGG questions arise because there are simply two (or more) different ways to interpret things.  I’m an attorney in real life, so I know that avoiding ambiguity/vagueness is a tremendous challenge, to the point of being practically impossible in some situations.  But we shouldn’t throw our hands up and claim futility, something I’ve literally seen designers/publishers do. Great clarity can come from a little effort and trying to see the perspective of others.
  8. Put a “most overlooked rules” section at the back of the rulebook, especially with complicated games.  Not many publishers use this tool, but they should: I’ve frequently found that part of the rulebook enlightening!
  9. Label your components on their punch boards.  I know this is minor (and probably personal to me), but I get incredibly annoyed when a rulebook discusses how to use a component and yet I don’t know which piece of cardboard they’re referring to.  Good rulebooks solve this by having labeled pictures of components, but not all of them even do this. Even then, it’d be nice if there were labels on the punch boards. (I believe Detective by Portal Games did this recently, and it was a phenomenal idea.)  
  10. Hire an editor.  Companies that do this tend to have better-written rules.  As the designer/publisher of the game, you’re often too close to it to judge what you’ve written.  To you, it may be the model of clarity, but that’s because you hold the system (and a lot of experience with it) in your mind.  An editor can help you get that into the mind of others.

But we players can be better about reading rules too…

All that said, a lot of rules questions are user error.  So here are some tips for reading rules:

  1. Actually read the rulebook, and do so in advance.  In my experience, two of the most frequent causes of rules problems mid-game is that (a) somebody tried to learn entirely from a video, or (b) the group is doing a weird group skimming of the rulebook with nobody actually knowing how to play.  Somebody at the table should actually read the rules, grok them, and then teach the rest of the table. But to the extent that you’d still prefer a video — something I completely understand — keep in mind that most video “reviews” aren’t really there to teach you the game, thus making them a terrible way to learn it.  I’d stick with Watch It Played, Gaming Rules, or a similar service that focuses on teaching and not just churning out content.
  2. You can reduce ambiguity and vagueness by coming at the problem in good faith.  Maybe this is unique to my group, and I don’t think that most gamers are like this, but several rule disputes in my group arise mid-game from self-interest.  Basically, somebody is contorting an otherwise clear text for their own ends. Don’t be that gamer: nobody likes him or her. (I have a couple of people I prefer not to play games with because they’re like that.)  This is supposed to be fun, so come at the problem from an honest attempt to read the rules for meaning, not to suit your own purposes. I suspect coming at something neutrally solves most cases of ambiguity/vagueness.
  3. If something is unclear, apply your intuition, and try to keep the game working as intended.  Stonemaier Games once posed an excellent hypothetical: if a deck of cards you draw from ran out, and the rulebook was unclear on how to proceed, what would you do?  Shuffle? Not draw cards for the rest of the game? I think most people would shuffle, not only because that’s what you would do in most games, but because it keeps an important game mechanic functioning.  Using your experience in other games, plus good-old-fashioned-common-sense, can get you quite a lot of clarity.
  4. Where possible, give meaning to every word.  This is an idea I’ve imported from law: attorneys call it the “surplusage canon,” and it stands for the proposition that when reading rules, assume that every word is significant.  For example, in Ultimate Werewolf, the Prince’s card says: “If you are voted to be eliminated, your role is revealed and you stay.” Even if the card doesn’t mention that this only applies during the day phase, but that’s obviously the case: the word “voted” here has meaning, since voting only happens during the day.  All that said, this canon of interpretation, like all, isn’t necessarily perfect. (Another canon of interpretation I’m fond of is the harmonious-reading canon: the idea that we should try to read rules in a way that renders them harmonious, rather than contradictory. This most often arises where the text on the card varies slightly from the text in the rulebook.  In the case of game rules, in my experience, reading in harmony generally provides the objectively right answer: where possible, try to read the rules in a way such that both are correct.)
  5. Check for errata in advance.  No, we shouldn’t have to do this, and I’m annoyed that so many games in 2018 have errata.  But a quick scan on a publisher’s site when you buy a game (or agree to teach it) can save trouble down the line.  This is especially true for complicated games, and it is especially important for long games.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: People learn best, and like to learn, in different ways – some prefer text, some prefer pictures, some prefer being shown. I’d suggest rules shouldn’t be skewed to one type or another, but should rather try to cater for all, as best as possible. But without being overblown! No one said it was easy.

Tery: I think it’s really important to have playtesters learn the game from the draft rules so that designers/companies can see where there may be confusion or where clarifications could be made. Have someone read the rules and then try to teach the game so that you can see where the pitfalls are; misunderstanding of the rules can lead to negative opinions of the game and I assume have a negative effect on sales.

I also agree on providing text, pictures and examples; learners all have different learning styles and examples or a picture can really help with reading comprehension.

Dale: As I mentioned in the first piece about rules, as a developer, I have always made it a point to not only blind playtest the games but also blind playtest the rules.  I need to see at least two groups make it through the game learning it from the rules. I just sit back with a notepad and take notes of all the questions people had through the teaching and the game – I do not play the game nor do I offer any clarifications – I spend my time making notes about where people got stuck or had questions is vital to improving further revisions of the ruleset.  It’s obviously not a failproof strategy, but I can say that in EVERY case thus far, my blind playtest of the rules has always generated at least one modification for a rulebook which I thought was already done. It is vitally important to remember that the rulebook is the only point of contact that most gamers will have with you as they play the game. You cannot assume that they have access to the Internet to look stuff up, or even if they do, that they have the ability/desire to look stuff up.  

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5 Responses to Ten Tips for Increasing Rules Clarity (Article by Chris Wray)

  1. Jeffrey Allers says:

    Great follow-up to the first article. Very practical, and show that there’s really no excuse for a bad rule book from a professional board game company.

  2. gamingleet says:

    My two additional requests:
    Index! If the game is even moderately complex provide a thorough index to relevant rules. I rarely see this and even more rarely find it complete enough.

    A pull quote should be a quote!!
    Some rule books pull out really important rules and place them near the other related rules. This is a great thing when it’s for emphasis. “Reminder: Don’t refill the auction house until a round is completed.”

    But, it is bad when the rule is ONLY mentioned this way. Players can spend far too long looking for the exact wording of an important rule because it is only in bold red in a grey sidebar and not written in the paragraphs of related rules text.

  3. joezg says:

    “Check for errata in advance”
    I would add, check for the new version of the rulebook on publisher’s page.

    Recently, I struggled with a very bad rulebook of a popular game and found out that there is a new rulebook on publisher’s website that clarifies all the ambiguities we had by reading the printed rulebook in the game box.

  4. Daniel B says:

    “Stonemaier Games once posed an excellent hypothetical: if a deck of cards you draw from ran out, and the rulebook was unclear on how to proceed, what would you do? Shuffle? Not draw cards for the rest of the game? I think most people would shuffle”

    But when? The moment the deck runs out, or the moment you need to draw but can’t?

    When games don’t specify, I go with the former, because it saves time. But sometimes it can make a big difference as to whether a powerful card is reshuffled or buried, and it’s amazing that some games aren’t clear on this.

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